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Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer - Double Feature

Sony Pictures // Unrated // April 25, 2006
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted April 19, 2006 | E-mail the Author
"You don't wanna mess with him. He hurts people. Permanently."
"Oh yeah? So do I."


Before "Mike Hammer" became a TV staple in the mid-1980s, Columbia and CBS gave a handful of test runs to the idea of bringing Mickey Spillane's legendary character into the modern age. First came the TV movie "Margin For Murder" in 1981, which featured Kevin Dobson as the private eye; when that failed to launch a series, the idea was reworked, resulting in two more pilot films under the "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" banner: "Murder Me, Murder You," which aired in April 1983, and "More Than Murder," airing in January 1984. Both starred Stacy Keach in the lead role, and the pairing of Keach's macho charm and Hammer's hard boiled attitude became a perfect match.

Most curious about these telefilms is how they manage to connect Hammer, a key figure in 1950s pulp fiction, with 1980s sensibilities. This is a Mike Hammer who must contend with punk rockers, jazzercisers, and Vietnam angst. Surprisingly, it works. The creators of this new series keep Hammer shamelessly stuck in the past - he still wears a fedora, digs Glenn Miller, calls smoking "a dying art," finds comfort in a tall glass of whiskey, and chases dames like there's no tomorrow. He's stubborn in his old fashioned ways, but the series is careful not to make this Mike's gimmick. He is never intentionally out of date; he's simply a man's man, and no man's man needs a stinking computer in his office.

The producers even find ways to adjust the post-WWII, Cold War anxieties that permeated film noir and detective yarns of Spillane's heyday. Here we find Hammer a Vietnam vet struggling to find adventure in the big city. It is, quite successfully, a match. There's no cutesy retro-ness about the upgrade. This Hammer likes things the way they used to be, but has no ignorance about the dangers of the Reagan era.

"I'd walked into a 31 Flavors of Women… and I wasn't on a diet."

In "Murder Me, Murder You," we find Hammer reuniting with an old flame, one who is, of course, in grave danger. As the plot unravels and the body count rises, Hammer must take on international arms dealers, porno rings, two-bit private dicks, and the Department of Justice, all to track down a briefcase worth a cool two million big ones - and with it, the daughter he never knew he had.

As the bizarre twists and turns of the story are what makes any Mike Hammer story so involving, I'll spare you any more details. (Like all Hammer yarns, this one's as convoluted and as deliciously ridiculous as they come.) Instead, I'll focus on where the filmmakers go right, which is, quite frankly, just about everywhere. "Murder Me, Murder You" rates among the very finest TV movies of the 1980s, a giddy, grimy tribute to the detective thrills of days gone by. (Only the pilot movie for "Moonlighting" made mystery cooler.) Screenwriter William Stratton finds great joy in bringing Hammer back to life in all his manly glory, Keach always ready with a wisecrack, a sucker punch, or both. And Keach is obviously relishing the role of a lifetime; just watch as he tilts his head back, pushes his hat forward, and grins a most devilish grin. Several actors have tackled the role before and since, but Keach not only makes it his own, but does it so effortlessly that it becomes impossible to think of anyone else playing the part.

At his side is a parade of scenery-chewing supporters, all of them in on the fun, all of them eager to make this the best modern noir possible. Tanya Roberts is Velda, Hammer's sexpot secretary. Tom Atkins plays the arms dealer who may or may not be on Hammer's side. Michael A. Andrews pops in at the end for an eye-popping big finish, while a young Delta Burke turns up the heat as a femme fatale.

It's all such terrific fun, but CBS, for reasons unknown, decided another revamp was in order. "More Than Murder" streamlined a few things: Roberts was out and Lindsay Bloom was in as Velda, the new actress putting a smarter spin on the role (here she's more assistant than mere eye candy); Kent Williams' role as the insufferable assistant D.A. became more prominent; the screenplay allowed Keach to do a little more narration, allowing for an even more old fashioned feel. (Hammer is even more of a scoundrel this time around, never finding a parking ticket he couldn't avoid.) The network must have liked what they saw, as "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" finally began its official first season just two days after "More Than Murder" premiered.

"Am I being followed, or are you being watched?"
"Both."


The only thing keeping this second pilot film from hitting the heights of "Murder Me, Murder You" is a slight lack of emotional heft. Keach's first outing finds him connecting with family for the first time in his life - and lamenting the thought that every woman who gets close to him meets a violent end. There's some unexpected depth brought to the character (which Keach handles perfectly, natch), but for the revamping, this depth seems lessened a bit. Yes, Keach maintains the sense of tortured hero that makes the series such a success, but even though this second outing delivers another doomed romance, there's not the same sense of permanence that affects the previous film. (Both films, however, approach James Bondian sensibilities, with brutal killings quickly forgotten with the arrival of a new sex interest.)

That said, "More Than Murder" is still most certainly an excellent outing, loaded with cold killers and hot dames, as the tattered paperback covers might say. The plot - just as preposterously tangled as its predecessor - involves country singers, coke dealers, a deadly armed robbery, and a DEA scandal for which Hammer's best friend finds his career and reputation on the line.

As with "Murder Me, Murder You," "More Than Murder" wins us over with its cracking combo of whip-smart screenwriting and top notch performances. Stratton returns to scripting duties, this time with co-writer Stephen Downing in tow, and like Stratton's previous outing, the script here captures the spirit and tone of Spillane, all the while crafting an all-new, all-modern tale. Meanwhile, the supporting cast delivers high caliber goods: watch for Tim McIntire as the sleazy country singer, Robyn Douglass as Hammer's love interest, and none other than Lynn-Holly Johnson as a sporting goods expert who's eager to help Hammer, ahem, rough it. Once again, the performances are top notch across the board, and the fun never lets up.

Following two seasons, the series went on a bit of a hiatus, returning with another TV movie, then two more seasons, and finally wrapping up with one last movie in 1989. Keach would return to the role in yet another revamped series in 1997; the syndicated "Mike Hammer, Private Eye," which now found an aging Hammer dealing with the Clinton era and which was unrelated to the 80s series, would last only one season.

The DVD

Sony has packaged the two pilot films in a two-disc set clumsily titled "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer: Double Feature," with each movie getting its own disc. Perhaps the studio is testing the waters here, watching sales of this to see if full season sets of the series would be worth the time and money.

The discs come in two slimpack cases, housed in a cardboard slipcover.

Video

Both films are offered in their original broadcast (1.33:1) aspect ratio. "Murder Me, Murder You" contains a slight amount of film grain throughout, not enough to ruin the image, but just enough to be a distraction for those of you who are sticklers for such things. (In an odd turn, the light grain actually helps the movie's gritty look.) "More Than Murder," meanwhile, looks absolutely spotless, crisp, clear, free of grain, looking better than it probably did twenty years ago.

Note: Sony has opted to replace the original Columbia Television logo at the end of the credits with a clunky 2006 edition Sony Television logo. A pet peeve of mine, this may not bother most viewers.

Audio

Both movies come in Dolby 2.0 stereo, quite clear, no complaints. It's simple, but much better than expected. Earle Hagen's jazzy theme song ("Harlem Nocturne") sounds spot on. Optional subtitles are offered in English and French.

Extras

None. (I'd have loved to hear Keach reminisce about this series, but perhaps that's being saved for the full season set? Or will Sony make those special features-free, too?)

Final Thoughts

Despite the disappointing no-frills presentation, this double bill is strong enough to be Highly Recommended, without question. The movies are downright fantastic, just what you need if you're looking for the rough and tumble adventures of a take-no-guff old school private eye. You'd be hard pressed to find TV movies of the era this solid.
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C O N T E N T

V I D E O

A U D I O

E X T R A S

R E P L A Y

A D V I C E
Highly Recommended

E - M A I L
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